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Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher

July 6, 2008
cover of Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher

Ruby Jacinski wants a better life. Her father is dead, her mother lost her job, the grocer won’t extend their credit, and the landlord doesn’t want to wait any longer for the three months back rent they owe. But in 1941 Chicago, there aren’t many options for a fifteen-year-old girl who didn’t think to take shorthand and typing before she was forced to drop out of high school to support her family. Ruby gets a job at the meat packing plant her mother used to work at, packing pickled hog’s feet after she made the mistake of telling a girl to “move her fat, lazy tush” while working at the much easier bacon packing section. It’s hard, smelly work. Dancing is her only escape from the drudgery.

At the Young Men’s Club annual dance, Ruby meets Paulie Suelze, the local bad boy, rumored to have been kicked out of the Army for killing a private. Paulie tells Ruby she could easily make forty or fifty dollars a week, instead of the $12.25 she’s currently earning, at the Starlight Dance Academy. Despite its name, Starlight is no academy. It’s a taxi-dance hall, where men pay ten cents for each dance with a woman employed there. In many ways, Ruby loves the benefits of her new job. Although she isn’t earning the fifty dollars a week Paulie said she might, she’s making much more than she would be packing hog’s feet, plus she has the freedom of being able to go to the movies during the day and restaurants at night, heady stuff for a girl who’d never been to a restaurant before. But being a taxi-dancer isn’t a respectable occupation for a girl. Ruby must lie to her mother and most of her acquaintances about her job, claiming to be a telephone switchboard operator, and hide all traces of what she’s really doing to continue to work at Starlight.

Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher is a portrait of a determined girl who decides to take a job that most people did not approve of, who emerged from difficult situations tougher and sadly wiser. The characterizations are rich—not just Ruby, but even the minor characters are carefully drawn, realistic and flawed—and the story told in a voice that sounds so real, it’s easy to imagine that Ruby was a real person. In characters like Ozzie, who plays the trumpet in the Starlight’s house band, and Manny and Alonso, two young men from the Philippines, Fletcher also touches on the casual racism of the era in a way that seems natural and essential to the story.

This is the kind of historical novel I love best: about a strong young woman constrained by the expectations of her time and trying to overcome them, with a setting brought vividly to life. Highly, highly recommended, especially to teen and adult fans of Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light.

Visit Christine Fletcher‘s website to learn more about taxi-dancers and more. Also reviewed by And Another Book Read… (and an interview with Christine Fletcher), The Book Muncher, The Compulsive Reader, Estella’s Revenge, Pinot and Prose, and The Ravenous Reader (and guest post).

12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2008 5:36 pm

    This sounds really interesting. I’ll have to check it out. 🙂

  2. July 7, 2008 6:41 am

    i really enjoyed this novel 😀 it was so well-written

  3. July 7, 2008 7:19 am

    Great review! The main reason this was stellar historical fiction was because Fletcher makes you nearly forget about the time and place and, instead, you are taking on a journey with the characters themselves. If you haven’t read Fletcher’s “Tallulah Falls”, I recommend that highly as well.

  4. July 7, 2008 9:50 pm

    Laura – Yes! That’s what I wanted to say in my review, but couldn’t figure out how to say it well. The setting is integral to the story — I don’t see how it could have worked in any other time — but at heart, it’s a coming of age story.

    I think I passed on Tallulah Falls the first time around because I’m not an animal person, but I may need to pick it up anyway, I enjoyed Ten Cents a Dance so much.

  5. November 24, 2008 1:32 pm

    I liked this book too, I think, for many of the same reasons: Fletcher took you away into her setting, and I liked Ruby immensely. Good review.

  6. alirambles permalink
    November 26, 2008 6:14 pm

    Just followed the link over here from the Cybils site. I really enjoyed this book, too, and Christine is great. I was fortunate enough to interview her in August, if anyone would like to learn even more about her and the process of writing this super book!


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